The big idea is to give [knowledge] workers access to a roles-based environment where information, business process, workflow, and collaboration with fellow workers are all done “in context.”
- Ken Bisconti, IBM VP, Workplace, Portal and Collaboration Software
In this fourth in-depth interview focusing on ODF-compliant office productivity suites, I interview IBM's Ken Bisconti, Vice President, Workplace, Portal and Collaboration Software. Unlike the prior interviews, however, this interview focuses not on a traditional office suite, but on a service within a series of products and technologies — the ODF-compliant editors included in IBM's innovative Workplace office collaboration environment.
IBM Workplace is an example of a type of next generation information environment that is being promoted by many major IT analysts, each of which has coined its own name for the new paradigm that it is promoting. For Forrester Research, that name is the "Information Workplace." For Gartner, it is the "High-Performance Workplace" . IDC calls it the "Enterprise Workplace," and also (rather grandly) "a long-awaited gift to the information worker from the IT community."
The same basic vision is shared by each of these analysts. Forrester describes its new paradigm in part as follows:
The information workplace (IW) will be much simpler, yet richer than today's tools by incorporating contextual, role-based information from business systems, applications and processes; delivering voice, documents, rich media, process models, business intelligence, and real-time analytics; integrating just-in-time eLearning; and fostering collaboration. Using a service-oriented architecture, the IW will be rich with presence awareness, information rights, and personalization, and it will provide offline and online support to a plethora of devices.
Like the Semantic Web or many Web 2.0 processes, this vision presents a way of interacting with technology and information that is conceptually different than what we are used to today. The Wikipedia describes IBM’s implementation of this vision this way:
IBM Workplace is a family of products and technologies from IBM for creating adaptive, unified, secure work environments that can be customized based on users’ unique roles and/or skill levels in the organization. IBM Workplace Client Technology is a client-side framework for creating server-managed business applications. It is built on open standards and can be used to create “rich client experiences” that can be centrally deployed and managed. IBM Workplace supports open standards including Java EE and Eclipse, and runs on multiple client and server operating systems (including LInux and Microsoft Windows).
Workplace itself comprises two primary elements: Workplace Collaborative Services, and the Workplace Managed Client which supports the Collaboration Services, as well as the documents and messaging functions of Workplace. Ken Bisconti describes Workplace more specifically in the interview as follows:
Workplace is comprised of a large variety of collaboration and management tools and components. It includes a role-based, device location and context sensitive portal framework, Domino collaboration services including email, calendar, personal information management, and many other services such as portlet factory, Web content management, Search, Forms, Workflow, realtime collaboration services, Document management, Team spaces, and eLearning, remote management, provisioning and synchronization. It also includes a collection of full function productivity editors that support ODF.
Workplace therefore offers a more flexible activity-based, rather than application-based, way of working that IBM hopes will become the “foundation for next-generation network-centric computing.” As compared, not coincidentally, to the present way of working with Microsoft products — a comparison that Bisconti has not been shy about making in the past. What’s past may not, of course, be prelude to future Microsoft plans. As Bisconti notes in the interview, Workplace is the “natural evolution of the pioneering ideas behind Lotus Notes/Domino and Websphere Portal.” Lotus design guru, and later Groove Networks collaboration software founder Ray Ozzie, is now of course Chief Software Architect for Microsoft.
If IBM’s hopes and the analysts’ predictions are realized, in the future text will be created anywhere and collaboratively, and the same text will be accessible anywhere within — or beyond — the Workplace. Not surprisingly, standards in general, and ODF in particular, are essential tools for realizing this vision.
Illustrating the ability of ODF to serve such purposes is the goal of this series of interviews, as such examples demonstrate the type of creativity and variety that becomes possible in the creation, use, sharing, and preservation of documents when they are based upon an open standard.
This interview follows on four prior reviews of both proprietary as well as open source ODF compliant office suites, each of which illustrates the same proposition in its own way. Those interviews can be found as follows: with Inge Wallin of KOffice here, with Louis Suarez-Potts and John McCreesh of OpenOffice.org here, with Erwin Tenhumberg of StarOffice here, and with Dr. Martin Sommer of SoftMaker here.
The next scheduled interview in this series will profile Novell’s Open Workgroup Suite.
Part I: IBM Workplace/ODF Overview
Product/service description: Role-based, device location and context sensitive portal framework; collaboration services include email, calendar, personal information management, portlet factory, Web content management, Search, Forms, Workflow, realtime collaboration services, Document management, Team spaces, and eLearning, remote management, provisioning, synchronization, and a collection of full function productivity editors that support ODF.
Current Version: ODF compliant editors are included in Workplace Managed Client V2.6
Next Significant Release: The “Hannover” Lotus Notes release will include the Workplace compliant editors, and is expected to ship in spring of 2007. The next release of the Workplace editors themselves will have improved interface and usability, improved accessibility compliance, and improved performance.
User Base: There are currently c. 125,000,000 Lotus Notes users worldwide.
Market: Workplace products are most suitable for users who participate in knowledge working in the context of business workflow, and therefore primarily for users in large and medium sized enterprise, although smaller enterprises that are connected via B2B portals would also benefit from Workplace. Workplace does not target consumers or standalone home office uses.
Accessibility: Plans are “in place” to not only close accessibility gaps, but to “raise the bar comparative to MS-Office.” Future releases will deliver support for assistive technologies; e.g. screen readers, screen magnifiers, etc. to fully serve the needs of the Persons with Disabilities communities. The new ODF 1.1 specification, which includes the accessibility extensions, will be supported in the IBM Productivity Tools in 2007.
ODF Compatibility: Not yet 100%; implementation to complete support for SVG (graphics), SMIL (animation), and XForms (forms) will be complete in the next major release.
Cost: The Workplace editors re in IBM products at no extra cost
Interoperability with MS-Office: Workplace editors can save to ODF or MS-Office format; We are very supportive of the concept of an ODF plug-in and are working with other industry players to promote and develop this technology. The specifics of how this technology could be inserted into the market are still being discussed.
II Specific Interview Questions
Q: The IBM Workplace concept may not be familiar to all readers. How would you describe it to those that are used to working with traditional applications on the desktop?
A: IBM Workplace is really an over-arching strategy that encompasses a variety of actual products. The issue is that knowledge workers have access to extraordinary amounts of information and have to deal with extraordinary complexity in their day-to-day lives. The big idea is to give those workers access to a roles-based environment where information, business process, workflow, and collaboration with fellow workers are all done “in context.” Traditional desktop applications give users a very specific window into a very specific kind of information or process.
Workplace provides an ever-adapting window that brings together the right people with the right information at the right time to make better quality decisions in a more timely manner.
Q: Please give us a brief overview of how the Workplace concept came about, and how long the project has been under development.
A: The underlying ideas behind Workplace have been part of the IBM Lotus culture for a very long time. It is the natural evolution of the pioneering ideas behind Lotus Notes/Domino and Websphere Portal. Workplace builds on the situational rapid assembly application development model that has been the hallmark of Notes/Domino for years. It combines it with context aware, roles-based, leading edge portal technologies, and supplies robust services such as team spaces, real-time collaboration, document management, elearning and forms, all using very modern programming techniques, enabling users to build very high value applications for very little money, very quickly. So it is difficult to say precisely how long it has been under development. We’ve been working on it and evolving it for a long time.
Q: How does the Workplace family of products figure into the overall IBM vision of the future of office computing?
A: The Workplace concept is very central to our overall vision. Business agility is increasingly important. The tools of the modern knowledge worker are an essential contributor to this business agility. Flexible back-end composability is being increasingly realized through SOA. Front-end composability, the dynamic ability to fit form, information and application logic to the purpose of an individual knowledge worker in a specific context, will be accomplished through Workplace technology.
Q: Please compare Workplace to Google’s Writely and its new Web-based spreadsheet. How alike and how different are IBM’s vision and what appears to be Google’s emerging vision of Web-based computing?
A: Tools like Google Writely, Web-based speadsheets as well as others such as WikiCalc are certainly showing us what is possible in a network-centric, browser-based paradigm and it is very exciting. We certainly are looking to adapt many of these concepts into the Workplace vision. Workplace, however, is a much more comprehensive vision than these point products.
Q: What products make up Workplace, both current and under development?
A: Workplace is comprised of a large variety of collaboration and management tools and components. It includes a role-based, device location and context sensitive portal framework, Domino collaboration services including email, calendar, personal information management, and many other services such as portlet factory, Web content management, Search, Forms, Workflow, realtime collaboration services, Document management, Team spaces, and eLearning, remote management, provisioning and syncronization. It also includes a collection of full function productivity editors that support ODF.
Q: More particularly for purposes of this interview, which Workplace products are most comparable to the four parts of the Microsoft Office suite?
A: The IBM Productivity Tools are part of the Workplace strategy and are shipped with the Workplace Managed Client V2.6 today. They will also be shipped as a standard component of the next Lotus Notes client. They are powerful and full feature word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tools. We have architected them to run in a server-managed environment which means that they are remotely provisioned and managed according to policy. They can store locally to the file system or to a local encrypted database which can be synchronized with server-based enterprise content management stores and process flow engines.
Q: Which of these products will be compliant with ODF?
A: Today, the IBM productivity editors do not fully support Open Document Format with 100% compliance. Implementation to complete support for SVG (graphics), SMIL (animation), and XForms (forms) will be complete in the next major release. IBM productivity editors can edit and save to Microsoft Office formats as well.
Q: How does ODF factor into IBM’s vision of the future of computing?
A: IBM views ODF as being one of a number of Web 2.0 technologies that have the potential to unleash extraordinary innovation. The support in the productivity editors is simply the first step. We have a number of research products going on that are exploring many creative usages of ODF. Documents are the lifeblood of many organizations. When documents become truly self-expressive and standards based, our paradigm of how documents are authored and shared will change. It’s very exciting and we are looking forward to seeing a large number of creative solutions emerge in the near future.
Q: Are there differences in the ways that users of Workplace productivity editor products would use them in comparison to how they use traditional office productivity software?
A: While they can operate in the traditional office suite mode (create/save/forward), the productivity editors are designed to be more a part of the fabric of the way we all work and interact with other people in the enterprise. They try to avoid the “in your face” paradigm and melt into more of a task oriented paradigm where the task isn’t “writing a document” it is more “how can I interact with a business process.” It is more tightly integrated into both the infrastructure management side of the equation and the business/ content process side of the equation. Much of this is invisible to the end user.
Q: What are some of the things that they could do with Workplace products that they could not do with traditional productivity suite software?
A: It isn’t that there are things that the productivity editors – and notice that we really refer to them more as a service than a product – can do that you wouldn’t be able to do with traditional editors, it is that it is more automated and integrated into the business fabric. The productivity editors feature the same “on demand” characteristics of other products based on the IBM/Eclipse rich client platform (RCP). Sametime, Workplace Managed Client and Notes “Hannover” share this model. You provision them and customize them in an automated way. You integrate your work into business processes in a much more seamless way. You don’t worry if you are connected or remote; policy database and synchronization technology make sure that your work is integrated into the appropriate process, that it is managed and secured according to policy and that the rest of the enterprise can leverage it appropriately.
Q: Please describe the roll out schedule for ODF compliant versions of Lotus Notes, for existing and new users.
A: Today we ship the ODF compliant editors with the Workplace Managed Client V2.6 offering based on Eclipse technology. The next version of Notes (“Hannover”) is based on the same Eclipse-based rich client technology. We expect that the next version of Notes, with the editors included, will be available in the spring of 2007.
Q: Do you expect to attract significant numbers of new customers with Workplace products, or mainly to sell into your existing user base?
A: We believe that the Workplace strategy provides many compelling value propositions. We are confident that we will be able to extend that value proposition well beyond our own 125,000,000-user base.
III. Common Interview Questions
1. Goals and hopes
Q: What is IBM’s vision for Workplace products? Where would you like to take Workplace products from a feature and market point of view?
A: Our vision is to enable the increasingly situational knowledge worker so that he/she has a clear, concise and “in context” view of the business environment around them. We think that we have only scratched the surface and are building the basic building blocks to what hopefully will be a new age of innovation in the collaboration space. We need our products and services and those of our many business partners to increasingly integrate and leverage each other while allowing end users to focus the technology on increasingly specialized/individualized situations. The technology needs to be flexible and composable.
Q: Has that vision changed over time, or have these always been the project goals?
A: The core of the vision has been consistent for some time. Certainly many of the specifics have been altered. The rise of situational applications programming and mashups, and their ability to attach themselves to real-time feeds and services, not only validates our philosophy but provides us with a new set of tools and techniques to accomplish our goal. In short, the increased pace of technology advances, including ODF, is accelerating our capacity to deliver on our vision.
Q: How many developers does IBM have working on Workplace products?
A: As so many products fit underneath the Workplace strategy banner that number is very large.
NOTE: The following questions were written for purposes of comparing more directly similar office suites, such as StarOffice and KOffice. Please adapt your answers as appropriate, but try and preserve the comparative goal of the interview series.
A: All of the following comparisons with the exception of The Google products are similar. The Workplace editors are part of a collaborative capability. They are part of a server managed client offering. They are differentiated by the way they are provisioned and managed. They are differentiated in that they can integrate into business workflow and processes and the simplicity with which the content they produce can be managed and leveraged by the enterprise including the application of compliance and other enterprise policy. They are not primarily designed to be a direct competitor to standalone productivity suites.
3. In what ways are Workplace products different from KOffice?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: The major difference, as above, is the “on demand” nature of the capabilities. KOffice, OpenOffice and StarOffice follow the traditional mode of operation, and that’s appropriate for many use cases — for example when people want traditional operation but open standards support. However, we have strong input from customers and analysts that a new, lower-TCO [Total Cost of Ownership —ed.] and more flexible mode of operation is needed, and that’s the design center of the Workplace editor capabilities. And while not exactly a feature, the fact that the Workplace editors are sold and supported by IBM is very appealing to customers who like to purchase from a small number of highly established vendors.
Q: In what ways are KOffice products ahead of Workplace?
A: Customers who need a strictly “like-for-like” replacement for a traditional office suite may find KOffice and similar products to be a good match. This might be the case if, politically, a least-change model is desirable. Also, some customers may prefer the “free” price point.
4. In what ways are Workplace products different from OpenOffice?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: See KOffice answer above.
Q: In what ways is OpenOffice ahead of Workplace products?
A: See KOffice answer above.
5. In what other ways, if any, are Workplace products different from StarOffice?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: See KOffice answer above. For customers with established Sun software accounts the support delta may be mitigated.
Q: In what ways is StarOffice ahead of Workplace products?
A: See KOffice answer above, with the exception of the price advantage of free products.
6. In what ways are Workplace products different from SoftMaker Office?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: See KOffice answer above. Additionally, there is a presentation manager component to the Workplace editors.
Q: In what ways is Softmaker Office ahead of Workplace products?
A: [No response]
7. In what ways are Workplace products different from Novell’s Open Workgroup suite?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: [No response]
Q: In what ways is Open Workgroup ahead of Workplace products?
A: [No response]
8. In what ways are Workplace products different from Google’s Writely and spreadsheet offerings?
Q: In what ways are they better?
A: The Google tools are designed for yet another usage scenario. The Workplace editors differentiate themselves based on the enterprise management and process integration issues mentioned previously and by the rich disconnectable experience. In some ways the Workplace editors are a hybrid of the ease of consumption of the Google products and the rich user experience and disconnectability of traditional editors.
Q: In what ways are Google’s products ahead of Workplace products?
A: [No response]
9. How will any of the above answers change on a comparative basis when the next release (or interim release) of Workplace products is issued?
A: They next release of the Workplace editors will have improved interface and usability, improved accessibility compliance, and improved performance.
Q: What types of users would Workplace products be right for? Anyone from a home user to an office user, or for more selected audiences?
A: Workplace products are most suitable for users who participate in knowledge working in the context of business workflow. This implies users in large and medium sized enterprise, but also many smaller enterprises that are becoming increasingly connected via B2B portals. Workplace does not target consumers or standalone home office uses.
Q: What types of users might be happier with Microsoft Office?
A: Consumers, students, very small home office users. There also may be scenarios where heavy reliance on sophisticated macros or other proprietary scripting may justify the cost and complexity of Office.
Q: Will this change much with later IBM releases?
A: We are always listening to customer demand and adapting our product strategy accordingly. Our goal is to make our products the best choice in all usage scenarios.
Q: Who besides IBM provides support for Workplace products today? Do you expect the support community to grow, and if so, where and how?
A: The editors and all the various Lotus Workplace and Notes products are directly supported by IBM and a network of partners.
Q: How does Workplace compare with MS-Office with respect to accessibility for those with disabilities?
A: We are making major investments to close accessibility gaps associated with the IBM Productivity Tools. Future releases will deliver support for assistive technologies; e.g. screen readers, screen magnifiers, etc. to fully serve the needs of the Persons with Disabilities communities. The new ODF 1.1 specification, which includes the accessibility extensions, will be supported in the IBM Productivity Tools in 2007.
Q: Do you expect that Workplace will become as accessible as MS-Office?
A: We have plans in place to raise the bar comparative to MS-Office.
12. What is the road map for Workplace products going forward?
Q: Are there any ways in which Workplace products is not fully compliant with ODF? If so, what is the plan for addressing this?
A: The IBM Productivity Tools packaged today in WMC 2.6 do not provide 100% support of the ODF v1.0 specification. Graphics (SVG), animation (SMIL), and forms (XForms) support will be added to provide 100% support with the upcoming Lotus Notes 8 release (Spring 2007).
Q: What differentiating features can we expect in Workplace products in the future?
A: See above.
Q: Please describe the licenses under which Workplace products is made available, and whether there is any reason to expect any variation on this answer in the future.
A: The editors are included in the workplace client offering and will be included in the next version of lotus notes. There is no extra charge for the editors.
13. ODF and Workplace products
Q: What did the release of the ODF standard mean for Workplace products? Was there no question that IBM would wish Workplace products to support it?
A: There was no question that the Workplace editors would support the ODF standard.
Q: How would you like to see the ODF standard evolve in the future? What would you like to see added to it?
A: IBM is heavily engaged in many aspects of ODF development. We will shortly see many improvements in accessibility, metadata and formulas.
14. Recent News
Q: What effect do you expect the approval by the ISO/IEC membership of ODF to have on the fortunes of ODF supporting software in general, and of Workplace in particular?
A: ISO/IEC standardization certainly helps ODF. It makes it easier to attract customer interest and easier to attract investment into innovative usages.
Q: The one criticism that seems to be most frequently leveled against ODF compliant software is that it is “bloated” and slow. At least one reviewer claims to have performed tests in which an ODF-compliant office suite performs poorly against MS-Office, supposedly relating to what must be loaded in connection with certain functions. Recently, Microsoft’s Alan Yates began to make the same comments. Do you think that this criticism is warranted, and to the extent that it is, is there a plan to address this in the future?
A: These criticisms have little to do with the specification. ODF is a much cleaner and elegant specification than the draft ECMA specification. These complaints about performance rarely have anything to do with how bloated an application is, Microsoft’s applications are enormous. They are related to the trade off decisions that products that implement these specs, or any other specs, choose to make. Do you load all the function up front? Yes, the load time for the first page is slower but the loading of more pages in a longer document are much faster and the ongoing user experience is more consistent. Do you only load a minimum and then try to load the rest when a user needs a particular piece of function. Do you cheat a bit and load core modules at OS boot up thus putting part of the overhead of your memory load at the feet of the OS but paying a price of longer boots and resources being assigned to function that may or may not be used. These are always tradeoffs and vendors are continually doing studies to try to figure out what the best tradeoff is. Sure it is valid to question the tradeoff decisions of various products is specific contexts and usage scenarios but general comparisons are very misleading. You can throw any number of scenarios at an application that advantage or disadvantage the particular tradeoff decisions that have been made.
Q: The Massachusetts ITD issued an RFI asking for information on plugins to facilitate conversions between MS-Office documents and ODF compliant software. Does IBM have any plans to develop and/or bundle any such tools? If you do, will you offer them to Massachusetts?
A: We are very supportive of the concept of an ODF plug-in and are working with other industry players to promote and develop this technology. The specifics of how this technology could be inserted into the market are still being discussed.
For further blog entries on ODF, click here